Stand by Me: Review

Stand By Me: The Forgotten History of Gay Liberation
by Jim Downs
Basic Books

Reviewed by Hank Trout

Downs-Stand By web[dropcap]S[/dropcap]tand By Me: The Forgotten History of Gay Liberation is historian Jim Downs’ attempt to correct the prevailing idea, among mainstream (straight) historians and some gay folks, that after the Stonewall uprising of 1969, the 1970s were nothing more than one long apolitical orgy that inevitably led to AIDS, and to demonstrate that gay life in the 1970s encompassed more than just sexual abandon. In many ways, the book is quite successful at resurrecting our community’s real history.

Beginning with “the largest massacre of gay people in American history,” the torching of the Up Stairs Lounge in New Orleans in June 1973, in which thirty-two gay men and women perished as they conducted worship, Downs examines the growth of the Metropolitan Community Church and other gay-friendly religious organizations as one of our community’s first alternatives to the bars and bathhouses. His research is impeccable; his description of the fire and the deaths Up Stairs is heart-wrenching.

From there, Downs uses Craig Rodwell’s Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookstore, the first non-porno gay bookstore in the country, and Jonathan Ned Katz’s groundbreaking Gay American History as evidence of the first recognition of literature, culture, and history that is distinctly gay. He documents the role of gay newspapers, primarily Toronto’s The Body Politic, in creating community, enabling gay folks around the globe to explore and debate being gay as a cultural, historical phenomenon for the first time.

The least successful chapter in Stand By Me is the last, “Body Language,” in which Downs seems to assert that the late-decade rise of the “macho clone” image (short hair, mustache, jeans, boots, worked-out muscular bodies) was a calculated attempt by white gay men to exclude African-American men and women from the gay liberation movement. That strikes me as quite a facile stretch, unworthy of the rest of the book.

Despite that shortcoming, Stand By Me is a laudable, thoroughly researched corrective to the prevalent idea of gay people in the 1970s as uninvolved, unengaged sex-crazed hedonists.

Hank Trout edited Drummer, Malebox, and Folsom magazines in the early 1980s. His published writing has ranged from gay “smut” (his term!) to literary criticism of William Blake. A long-term survivor of HIV/AIDS (diagnosed in 1989), he is a thirty-six-year resident of San Francisco, where he lives with his fiancé Rick. He read two of his pieces at the National Queer Arts Festival in San Francisco in June of last year.